Category Archives: supermarkets

Supermarkets shrinking in the USA

Here’s an article from the New York Times which writes about the growth of down-sized supermarkets, based on a perhaps British model of small ‘express’ or ‘local’ supermarkets. (Mile of Aisles for Milk? Not here. May require free registration.) These can be pretty similar to, say, a very well-stocked 7-Eleven, though sometimes a good deal larger (the article quotes 10,000 sq.ft.) offering a range of essentials and not much more, but with the cachet of being within a supermarket concept, rather than overpriced convenience store (though your reality may differ 😉 ).

I don’t think we’ve seen people clamouring for this yet in Australia — probably because our supermarkets are still rarely as large as some of the larger US or UK stores. We’ll presumably see some more growth before consumers start complaining about too much choice! (Although the big players here have developed the city-centre smaller store concept a bit, I suspect this has more to do with burgeoning apartment-dwelling populations than a desire for simplified choices.)

What role do supermarkets play in your life?

Once upon a time there were no supermarkets. Most people who have grown up in Australia have forgotten or never known a life without sheds filled with neat aisles of groceries and the ka-ching! (or bloop!) at the checkout. As tourists or concerned consumers, many of us love produce markets and some of us regard supermarkets as fairly evil, but we are still largely dependent on a lifestyle with supermarkets close to the core.

What role does the supermarket play in your practical life and in your issues-driven decision-making?

I’m going to list a few of the many issues surrounding supermarkets and my own feelings, then invite comments.

It can be argued pretty well that supermarkets in Australia:

(+) brought more variety into people’s lives
(+) helped people explore new foods and cuisines
(+) give some people access to better ethical choices, such as organic food
(+) often help consumers save heaps of money

(-) are greatly responsible for the pervasive consumer obsession with low prices
(-) strongly distort the retail market, imposing restrictive supply and pricing arrangements on producers/manfacturers
(-) make massive profits while claiming to be working in the consumers’ interest
(-) often charge much higher prices for fresh produce than small retailers or markets
(-) promote convenience and price, often at the expense of quality and, increasingly, variety

It could also be argued (though opinions are more likely to differ) that supermarkets:

  • promote a self-focused lifestyle of convenience (Gobbler pointed out in a comment recently that this can be more perceived than real)
  • reflect consumer trends or what manufacturers claim are consumer trends
  • reduce the amount of thought that consumers put into food choices
  • present consumers with too many unhealthy or unethical options
  • offer a picture of food which is too distant from reality (seasonality, cost, etc)
  • only react constructively to consumer issues when they see a profit opportunity

 

So what do I think and do?

We’re spoilt for choice and seduced by cheap goods, sometimes so cheap that you doubt whether the supplier actually gets more than a cent, gross, for each unit. None of this is transparent – I can’t know whether a house-brand item at $1.50 is of more benefit to the producer or manufacturer than the $1.95 other brand. I don’t know whether a cut-price special is a loss-leader for the supermarket or a massive discount extracted from a supplier. In general, I make my choice based on quality or a measure of price-quality-conscience based on my budget.

I try to buy Australian rather than imported products, except where a local equivalent is too poor to compare. (A difficult decision, and different people will have different thresholds, of course!)

I have no loyalty to a particular supermarket chain because I’ve heard enough stories from suppliers about how each chain controls the availability of products and makes it hard for new products or small suppliers to make it onto the shelves (shelf space is often bought by manufacturers).

I try not to buy fresh produce of any sort from the supermarket.

I would like to be able to buy more fresh produce from quality suppliers with a good approach to their livestock, their producers and/or the environment. Often this isn’t possible because I can’t easily buy bulk. My work schedule frequently gets in the way of going to markets. And my budget often makes it impossible to go for the choices I would prefer. (For those of you with the space for bulk purchasing or looking for alternative sources, A Goddess in the Kitchen has a good post which mentions in the comments some suppliers worth considering (Rutherglen Lamb, Aussie Farmers Direct).)

So what about you?

Do you try to avoid supermarkets or embrace them? What solutions work for your ethical, environmental, or personal perspectives? Remember, the focus here is on supermarkets.

[Note: A few valuable comments on this theme after a previous article may have been drowned out at the time, so those readers are welcome to repeat themselves here if appropriate.]

Does Slow Food know its audience and goals?

foodfestbanners.JPG

Melbourne is alive with the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. A special event as part of the two-week festival is ‘A Taste of Slow’, held this weekend. There aren’t a lot of spoken word events at the Festival; there are a lot of interesting demonstrations, classes and dining experiences. By ‘spoken word’ I of course mean something more than ‘this is how you cook ingredient X’ — I’m looking for something more intellectually stimulating than that.

Three years ago, the Festival held a number of interesting panel discussions in conjunction with a trade fair (Fine Food) and the level of information and discussion was reasonably good. Since then, my memory tells me that the only spoken word affairs have been on the Slow Food side of things. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the topics for discussion are narrowed by the simple fact that Slow Food has specific things it wants to talk about and it attracts certain types of people.

That was a rather long preamble to a long comment about some of this year’s spoken word events. I attended two of yesterday’s sessions:

  • What is Slow Food?
  • Wellbeing and pleasure

I came away with a numb bum and the feeling that Slow Food is still failing to get its message across or perhaps even to know what its message is.

The events actually started on Friday evening, with a keynote by Greg Critser about his book ‘Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World’ and the reactions to it. I had to miss this due to a more important commitment, but in hindsight it’s a pity, because this talk seems to indicate a new direction for Slow Food.

The first Saturday session, ‘What is Slow Food?’ was billed as:

Did you know that Slow Food supports a gastronomic university and a foundation for saving rare and endangered foods? Speaking from personal experiences, members of the Australian Slow Food movement, Daniela Mollica, Bob MacLennan and Christine Bond explore the concepts and projects that ate at the heart of the Slow philosophy.

If it had started on time, my bum wouldn’t have got as numb on the attractive but really rather hard seats in the BMW Edge auditorium at Federation Square. Mistress of Ceremonies, radio personality Helen Razer, thought she was being funny when she hoped ‘that everyone had travelled here at snail’s pace’. The organisers certainly had.

Daniela Mollica gave us a bit of her resumé, talked about her rare-breed cattle (Chianina), and provided a brief history of Slow Food in Melbourne and the Convivium (local chapter) that she helped found. She’s aware of many of the issues which concern Slow Food and the misconceptions about what Slow Food is, and she covered many points in an attempt to make a few things clear.

Bob MacLennan (Brisbane) talked about the ‘Ark of Taste’ which acts as a sort of registry for endangered traditional foods. He told us a little about the four Australian foods in the Ark (bunyanuts, bullboar sausages, leatherwood honey, Kangaroo Island Honey), showed us a mini-documentary about the breeders of mangalica pigs in Hungary and the starting of ‘Presidia’ (quality control projects), and then some film of initiation rites in Papua New Guinea. The latter was ostensibly relevant to his mention of giant yams, but the focus drifted.

Christine Bond (Darwin/Top End) started off by talking about food and history in the Top End but rapidly moved to telling us all about her Convivium’s activities and the practicalities of setting up and running a Convivium. At times it verged on the irrelevant for a Festival audience. Finally, we heard that her Convivium runs basic cookery classes. A noble endeavour, but it begs the question whether 99% of cookery books and classes are therefore ‘slow’.

It’s difficult running a movement-profile session when much of your audience might already know what Slow Food is, but others may have come because they knew nothing. A diverse audience requires a bit more than this hodgepodge. ‘Convivium’ was defined eventually. ‘Ark of Taste’ wasn’t explained fully, if I recall correctly, and the mysterious ‘Presidia’ suffered grammatically and conceptually. I don’t know if the speakers were given a clear brief, but after Daniela’s fairly good start it became less and less clear what the session wanted to achieve. As it was running so late, there was no chance for audience participation either — it would have been interesting to see why people attended and what they really wanted to know.

The second Saturday session, ‘Wellbeing and pleasure’, was described as:

Author Sherry Strong explains how slow, local and organic were never fads in nature, but simply the most convenient way to eat. Jane Dixon discusses how the supermarkets have weighed in on the debate about healthy eating. Chef Tony Chiodo demonstrates how easy it is to savour the simple pleasures of fresh, seasonal and healthy food.

And then it ran off the rails a bit. I didn’t expect to hear clichés about obesity and culture, or endure junk science and scare-mongering. That’s what we got to listen to.

dixon_.JPG

Jane Dixon’s well structured talk (an academic with a clear Powerpoint presentation) started interestingly, looking at the conundrum of supermarkets offering healthy convenience food and, more broadly, the oft-ignored fact that supermarkets have offered a lot of improvements for our health and diet. It was inevitable that these topics would be left underexplored in a fairly short presentation with a diverse audience, but I wished there was a little more information beyond the very general facts.

However, Dixon then wheeled out a few clichés which work well with a sympathetic audience but leave a bad taste if you think about them:

  • she placed interesting emphasis on ‘supermarket aisles full of fruit juices with their sugars’ and that set off an alarm because part of the obesity-crisis lobby is currently targeting fruit juice as a villain.
  • She then cited a study showing that time spent in one’s car is linked to obesity (and supermarkets cause us to sit in our cars).
  • Then we had the ‘Europeans value quality over quantity’ claptrap — that’s right, France has no burger chains full of adults and teens, French cheese isn’t heavy on fat, and the ever-popular ‘formules’ (set menus) aren’t too large and nutritionally unbalanced.

Somewhere close to the end we heard the wonderfully incongruous ‘food is fuel now’ (as opposed to in the good old times when women slaved at the stove churning out meals for their (presumably not always taste-interested) husbands and children to eat, or (heavens!) when people had access to barely any dietary variety and of course were stone-soup gourmets as they dined in their medieval huts). Food is just ‘fuel’ now, yet we spend so much time talking about it, dining out, trying new food fads, falling victim to gourmet-product markups… ??

Sherry Strong’s talk was passionate and well rehearsed, but in the way an evangelist spreads a message through motivating or scaring and choosing their rhetoric very carefully.

‘The further we deviate from nature, the sicker, bigger we’re getting.’ ‘In nature you’d never think to store an apple for twelve months or to cover it in chemicals.’

I’d love a definition of what ‘nature’ is in this sort of empty argumentation. Individual overweight humans have been observed for quite a large part of history. Preserving food using almost any technique and useful substance available isn’t exactly new. Burying food stuffs or storing them in caves to get through long cold (or hot) periods is simply the precursor to the cold cabinet.

Perhaps the absolute stunner for the day was the broad-stroke assertion that processing things with chemicals makes them dangerous to you. Let me paraphrase closely: No-one has an addiction to poppy seeds, but look what happens when you make heroin out of them. Now think about all that over-processed oil and refined sugar. Oh my god. I think I need one of those Jamie Oliver ‘Flavour Shakers’ — I’d fill it with powdered nuance and sprinkle it liberally.

On a lighter note, pleasant and likeable chef Tony Chiodo chatted about health and healthy eating and whipped up two soups.

chiodo.JPG

I’m sure there are lots of people caught up in the ideology being spruiked in this session and who would have agreed wholeheartedly with what was being said. By its very nature, Slow Food must attract people concerned about issues, but it can also serve an educative role. So much of the public discourse about food and eating exploits fears, misconceptions and rose-tinted nostalgia to persuade people to believe. Was this what the organisers of A Taste of Slow wanted in this session?

Across these two sessions, there was interesting information provided and points for discussion raised, but I felt the weaknesses were embarrassing. Spoken word events could be used to inform, explain, elaborate and challenge, but instead the first session was poorly thought out and the second (and perhaps other parts of the program as a whole) seem to be a path of ideology. It worries me, particularly, that the obesity-crisis lobby is gaining a voice under the Slow Food banner. I don’t see what legitimate role obesity clichés have within a movement that is meant to focus positively on food and cultural tradition. Daniela Mollica ended her talk by saying that Slow Food was about being ‘inclusive and positive, not exclusive and negative’, but those values will be hard to maintain if people who spend their time obsessing about negatives (evil supermarkets, evil industry, evil scientists, evil processed food) are embraced without question by Slow Food.

London 2007

Borough Market
[This is the second article about travel. Others: chocolate in London, Paris.]

It’s three years since I was last in Britain and I was curious to see what might have changed in the food scene. I’ve tried to keep up, reading the Observer Food Monthly as often as possible (I prefer the paper version rather than just browsing articles online) and paying attention to discussions on eGullet. It wasn’t hard to miss the popularity of gastropubs, the growth of decent chocolatiers, and the burgeoning enthusiasm for organics. (I last lived in Britain at the turn of the millenium and saw the beginnings of the organic boom there.) Below are some observational tidbits.

Organics and markets

Daylesford Organic

A fairly new chain of organic lifestyle stores in the UK (not to be confused with a grower in Australia). The emphasis at Daylesford Organic is primarily on food, but they also stock other items (homewares). I visited the store in Pimlico – a large store over three floors, with very clean, minimalist appearance (polished stone surfaces, pale timber, white white white). The ground floor contained an eatery (absolutely bustling on a Saturday morning) and fresh produce, while upstairs were honeys, oils and other edibilia, plus homewares. It won’t come as a surprise to you that the prices were, well, hhhhigh… which is not to disparage the impressive range of products.

At the back left of the ground floor were refrigerated displays of dairy and other products, including some very pretty gull eggs. A lady was carefully filling a six-egg carton. As she walked past me, I asked her what she would use them for.

‘Oh they make a wonderful omelette,’ she said. ‘The flavour is lovely. Though probably not enough to justify the expense.’

I wandered over to the cabinet and finally saw the price tag. GBP 3.50 (A$8.75) per egg.

Pimlico Road Farmers’ Market

Opposite Daylesford Organic is an island of concrete and trees. This is Orange Square, the site for the weekly Saturday farmers market. A modest market, with approximately 20 stalls. (The London Farmers’ Markets website lists 42 vendors, but this is a far cry from the number there on my visit.) Juice is a popular item. Fresh, variety-specific apple and pear juices. Some meat and cheese stalls, bread, flowers and veg. The produce was interesting and generally of good quality, but not all stall-holders were able to answer (fairly basic) questions about their produce.

Markets require planning and control, so there are often quotas on how many competing stalls there can be. The rather perverse result is that some stall-holders sell ‘unauthorised’ wares under the counter.

Marylebone Farmers’ Market

This one is a Sunday market. Definitely larger than Pimlico’s, there are about 40 stalls. Produce variety is slightly greater, though I saw more ready-to-eat food here than at Pimlico. Some overlap in vendors between the two markets, which probably shouldn’t be surprising.
Marylebone Farmers
The greatest happiness came with the discovery of a stall selling unpasteurised milk. Descriptions of fresh (raw) milk often talk about the warmth and creaminess of the milk. Unfortunately, I find warm milk quite vile, so the thought of warm, thick, tasty milk has never been a marketing success in my books. Thank goodness the Grove Farm Hollesley Bay Dairy were offering tastings, chilled. The milk was, well, not at all vile. Not special either. Just nice, cold milk with more cream. We bought a bottle.
Real milk
Look at the cream
Close by, on Moxon Street, is the London butcher and charcuterer The Ginger Pig, renowned for raising their own livestock, thus controlling the entire foodchain for most of the products they sell. They also have a refreshingly blunt philosophy about this process:

We need to move on from our obsession with the word ‘organic’, which is now less about product than about lifestyle. From planting the seed to harvesting the crop, from breeding the animal to feeding it and slaughtering, we oversee the whole process. We’re not selling a lifestyle. We’re selling food. (Read more)

A few doors up from The Ginger Pig is La Fromagerie, a grocer and café with an impressive cheese room. The website has numerous pictures that give a good feel for the place, and a great cheese search engine. Sensibly, the number of people permitted into the cheese room was limited. The café space was bustling and the food smelt good. Although the appearance of La Fromagerie and Daylesford Organic are very different (earthy, rustic modern vs stark modern), I’d say the clientele is fairly similar.
La Fromagerie London

Borough Market

I’ve heard far too many people rave about Borough Market. It seems to be a writer’s duty to mention it with enthusiasm (if the number of mentions in articles, interviews and live talks is anything to go by). While living in London about six years ago (as the market’s popularity was on the rise, thanks in no small part to Jamie Oliver), I went to Borough Market twice. It was not impressive for someone used to Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market.

I had resolved to give the place a third chance. So many years had passed and people were still enthusing. Maybe something had changed. I went.
Borough Market views
Six years ago I found Borough Market to have a disproportionate number of takeaway food stalls and not enough produce for real people. Sure, you could buy Austrian jams for wildly inflated prices (perhaps three times the retail price in Austria) and organic chocolate truffles for a cool GBP 100 (A$250) per kg (if memory serves me right), but this wasn’t a market for the everyman/woman.
Borough Market French cheesemonger
I was so happy to see a number of well-stocked cheesemongers with knowledgeable, engaging staff offering liberal tastings. The same could be said for some of the charcuterers. The initial impression was of a more accessible, interesting market than previously. However, it still lacks the feeling of lively competition and practical purpose that makes real everyday markets atmospheric. There are relatively few vegetable stalls or butchers (quite a lot of cryovac produce too). (If my impression is wrong, please correct me.) There are quite a few boutique producers but many show a too-strong tendency to head down the cute-expensive path. At least I found some absolutely delicious fudge from Burnt Sugar — if you have the chance, try their ginger or sea salt varieties!
Burnt Sugar fudge
You still get the feeling at this market that cooked food dominates. There is a real thronging of people to buy lunch or snacks, and searching the internet reveals more comments about ready-to-eat food than produce at Borough Market. The atmosphere at this market is good and on a warm day is vibrant. But despite the pleasant experience with the cheesemongers (and I’m sure there are other gems in the market), I don’t feel it’s a place for people who love food and cooking without trendy pretence – it seems very much a reflection of food-as-lifestyle.
Borough Market crowd

Supermarkets

British supermarkets differ greatly from Australian ones. Ready-meals take up whole refrigerator aisles. Environmentally suspect packaged portions dominate in lines that Australians would expect to find loose at the deli counter. Conversely, the quality of unpackaged meat at the butcher’s counter is miles ahead of that in Australia. Dairy sections have an excellent range of cheeses. The quality of in-house bakery lines is generally better too, and there is more diversity and quality in the cakes and patisserie lines sold. (Let’s face it, in-house bakery/patisserie lines in Australian supermarkets are mostly aimed about one millimetre above garbage.) British supermarkets have a greater range of baking ingredients and, increasingly, the quality of fruit and veg should shame the Australian giants, Coles and Woolworths/Safeway (and the price difference between the two countries for fresh produce is much, much smaller than it was a decade ago). Before you think I’m on a love-in with Sainsbury and Tesco, I assure you that the presence of more basic multicuisine ingredients (from tofu to kaffir lime leaves) in Australian supermarkets and the generally more friendly and efficient service (yes, even if your Safeway only has seemingly-vapid sixteen-year-olds on the tills) is enough for me to embrace Coles and Safeway.
Sainsbury baguette and flower holder
An interesting development at Sainsbury and M&S (and, presumably, Tesco and Waitrose) was the greatly increased detail in labelling. The bag for the potatoes showed the variety, which farmer/producer grew them and where. The same was the case for the bacon I bought. This is impressive, catering to the burgeoning demand for information on provenance. In Australia this is still primarily a point of discussion about meat, if at all. Imagine asking your supermarket assistant where the bacon was from! Australians aren’t yet (hopefully never) as scared of food as the British seem to be – in Britain there is more reason, given the BSE and foot-and-mouth scares, the presence of salmonella in poultry, a very strong animal rights lobby, and (broadly) a loss of understanding of food during the twentieth century. If enthusiasm for this kind of labelling were to rise in Australia, it would require a radical change in the food industry, challenging large, faceless producers and suppliers and introducing a public accountability that the supermarkets and many others would be distinctly uncomfortable with.
Detailed food labels 1
Detailed food labels 2
Detailed food labels 3

Dodgy food

Of course, you can’t expect everything on the British food scene to change overnight (or in a decade, say). There are still patisseries in Soho serving outrageously priced little choux pastries filled with chocolate cream. The cream is that cheap-bastard favourite: crème pâtissière with lots of cornflour and little (if any) egg. GBP 4.00 (A$10.00). The establishment (like so many others everywhere) is in most of the guidebooks and presumably survives on past glory and the gullibility of guidebook readers (I’m sure we’ve all fallen for these places many a time).

And on a starkly different wavelength, Harrods is now an outlet for Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Krispy Kreme at Harrods

Goodbye

The Tube
I came over all warm and fuzzy as the beautifully calming Voice on The Tube announced ‘This … is Waterloo.’ She’s new since last I was there. Much nicer than the ‘Pleasemindthegapbetweenthetrainandtheplatform’ man. My Eurostar train awaited.

– DM
[This is the second article about travel. Others: chocolate in London, Paris.]